Can an Executor do anything to progress administration of an Estate where there are claims being threatened?
One problem for those involved in contentious probate disputes is that they can often take a long time – the process of getting to trial is a long one and delays in the Court system mean that parties can wait months for a hearing date. During that time the estate is essentially frozen. It may be possible for everyone involved in the dispute to come to an agreement about how to deal with the assets (I often advise that a limited Grant of Probate be obtained to sell property and that the proceeds then be held in a designated account until conclusion of the proceedings) but if they cannot, then the Court may have to become involved at an early stage.
In the case of Williams v Seals, Robinson and Seals  EHWC 3708 the Court had to determine an application regarding the estate of Arnold William Seals deceased. He had taken his own life whilst suffering depression caused by the death of his wife some 3 years earlier. He was a farmer, and had a half share in the family farm in Derbyshire (the other half share being held by the children of his late sister), and a home in Derby. He left his entire estate to Mrs Williams, a childhood friend with whom he had rekindled his friendship following the death of his wife, disinheriting his three children.
The deceased’s two sons issued proceedings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, and all three children threatened claims to have the will set aside on the grounds of lack of capacity and undue influence. They also threatened a claim to have the land transferred to them on the basis of a proprietary estoppel. In September 2014, in order to protect their position, they registered cautions against first registration of the land at the Land Registry which meant that it could not be sold. However, Mrs Williams and the children of the deceased’s sister, wished to sell the farm land at auction on 6 November 2014, and therefore applied for an order that the cautions be revoked. This was considered by the Court at the end of October 2014.
The correct approach for the Court to take in considering this application was set out in the case of Nugent v Nugent  EWHC 4095 (Ch). The considerations are akin to those for an injunction application.
(1) Is there a seriously arguable case where the children have prospects of having the property transferred into their names?
The Court held that the children had arguable cases under the Inheritance Act and for undue influence, on the basis of the evidence available. The claim for lack of capacity would be unlikely to succeed, and no view was given on the proprietary estoppel claim. However, the likelihood was that the children would receive damages rather than a transfer of any land – particularly in view of the fact that the estate was only entitled to half of the farm in any event and there was no evidence that the children would have the financial resources to purchase the other half. The children had no intention of living on the farm, or of farming, although they did want to ‘maximise the sale value’ of the land.
(2) Would either or both parties be adequately compensated by an award of damages if the claims were ultimately to be unsuccessful?
The Court was very concerned about the prospect of the land losing value if it were not to be sold. Whilst Mrs Williams would be able to compensate the children if this were the case (because she had independent means), the opposite was not the case. The children, particularly the sons, had very little money and would not be able to pay compensation.
The Court also considered the following points to be relevant:
- The terms on which the farm was to be sold were appropriate (which included a further payment to the vendors in the future if planning permission were granted);
- The joint owners wanted the property to be sold and their wishes had to be taken into account;
- No claim to challenge the will had actually been started, even though the children had been aware that they might have such a claim for approximately 6 months.
The cautions were therefore cancelled so that the sale of the farm could proceed.
For advice about challenging a will, bringing a claim under the Inheritance Act or defending a claim against an estate, please contact a member of our contentious probate team.